On Thursday, PEOPLE reported on an Instagram account that has gone viral recently due to the wildly provocative images of shark angler Elliot Sudal. In light of the popularity of these photos and wide media coverage, a contingent of ocean agencies and professed shark experts and advocates reached out to express concern over the photographs snapped by Sudal, who says he’s a volunteer for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Cooperative Shark Tagging Program.
Kate Brogan, a representative of the NOAA Fisheries Public Affairs, addressed the agency’s relationship with Sudal and clarified best practices for anglers who fish for sharks.
“Mr. Sudal is not and has never been an employee of NOAA Fisheries nor is he formally affiliated with any of the agency’s programs,” reads a May 18 statement from NOAA Fisheries. “He practices citizen science as a volunteer and provides the agency with some of his data. The agency remains concerned with Mr. Sudal’s shark and sawfish handling practices. Best practices and guidelines for volunteers call for the immediate release of sharks. Physical handling should be minimized, all species should be kept in the water while tagging and then released quickly. During tagging, sharks should not be dragged onto dry sand or boat decks for any reason.”
The agency goes on to say that “Mr. Sudal’s tagging of an endangered smalltooth sawfish caught in Florida in April 2017 was investigated by NOAA and resulted in a compliance assistance letter from NOAA’s Office of General Counsel informing him of the Endangered Species Act issues and the safe handling protocol for sawfish. Smalltooth sawfish are related to sharks and were listed under the Endangered Species Act in 2003. Shark and smalltooth sawfish handling guidelines are designed to provide fishermen with best practices to reduce the likelihood of injury or death of such important species in our magnificent ecosystem.”
NOAA Fisheries provides information to anglers about best practices for catch and release of sharks, as well as other species, and it works with fishing communities, other government agencies and non-government partners to advise on careful catch and release practices, prohibited species and other ways to protect endangered animals.
In the NOAA’s “Careful Catch” brochure, the agency explains how important careful catch and release guidelines are for maintaining the population of all marine species.
“An ethical angler uses tackle and techniques which minimize harm to fish when engaging in catch-and-release angling,” says the U.S. Code of Angling Ethics.
Following best practices “drastically decrease(s) the number of fish that die after being released.” The NOAA also cites a 2016 study by Dr. John Graves of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, which showed that “by simply not removing the fish the from the water, white marlin mortality after release could fall from 33.3% to 1.7%.”
Some other critical pointers from the NOAA regarding shark catch-and-release best practices include:
- Do not remove the fish from the water … even for a picture!
- Keep the fish in the water, boatside, while safely removing the hook. Gravity above the water’s surface exerts great stress on the fish and lowers its chance of survival after release.
- Rig a measuring device so the fish can be measured in the water. For example, mark a pole, leader and float, or the gunwale of the boat with measurements for the legal retention size.
- Do not gaff the fish in the body. Use a lip gaff in the front lower jaw, or a snooter for billfishes.
- Use circle hooks and dehooking devices. Research shows that non-offset circle hooks are less likely to hook a highly migratory species in the throat or gut than J-hooks. Instead, non-offset circle hooks more often set in the jaw or the corner of the mouth, making removal more accessible and less harmful to the fish. Use of non-offset circle hooks also reduces the risk of catching and fatally injuring sea turtles.
- Reduce the fight time. Playing a fish to exhaustion depletes its energy reserves and causes lactic acid to build up in its tissues, which can add to stress and contribute to death. Using heavier tackle is a good way to reduce fight time.
- Help revive the fish by slowly towing it in the water until its color or energy returns (five minutes or more). Most highly migratory species must keep water flowing over their gills to breathe. With the boat in gear, slowly move forward while keeping the fish’s head in the water.
Additionally, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s website offers more guidelines about smart shark fishing, handling and release. It supports many of the NOAA’s best practices, such as:
- Minimize fight time.
- Use Shark-Smart tackle.
- Do not specifically target sharks if the surf is too rough to release appropriately and safely.
- Keep sharks, especially the gills, in the water.
- Removing sharks from the water can increase the likelihood of injuries to the shark.
- NEVER bring a large shark onto a fishing vessel, a pier or bridge or onto dry land beyond the surf zone unless you plan to harvest it.
- Minimize handling and release time and do not delay release just to take pictures.
- Do not sit on the shark’s back or pull back on the snout to reveal the teeth.
- Use a long-handled dehooking device to help with hook removal.
- If you cannot safely and quickly remove the hook from the mouth, a bolt cutter may be used to cut the hook. If this method delays release or it becomes unsafe to do so, leave the hook in the shark and cut the leader as close to the hook as you can. Wire leaders can be cut with wire cutters.
- Sharks that swim off with a long length of line trailing behind them may be less likely to survive.
- Have release tools ready and know how to use them.
- If taking photos, make sure the camera is ready beforehand.
- Ensure everyone knows their role in the release procedure prior to the fishing trip.
PEOPLE reached out to Sudal for comment following the backlash from some members of the oceanic science and shark advocacy communities. The angler says he is “trying to figure out [the backlash] myself. [NOAA] sends me the tags, I put them in the sharks, I’ve had a good relationship with them for years. I never claimed to be employed by them, and everything I do promotes shark education and what the program is all about.” According to Sudal, he is “honestly just trying to promote awareness on the topic.”
However, Amanda Nalley of the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission says FWC law enforcement “is looking into” Sudal’s recent catch of a hammerhead shark. “Hammerhead sharks are prohibited from harvest in Florida state waters. This means that, when caught, they must be released immediately, free, alive and unharmed,” says Nalley, referring to the Shark Smart handling guidelines on the FWC website “to ensure sharks like these are released in such a manner that increases chances of survival.” She also cited two Florida fishing rules, 68B-2.002 and Rule 68B – 44, for shark enthusiasts and animal advocates to check out.
For further information about the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) Cooperative Shark Tagging Program (CSTP), as well as the protection of marine life and ecosystems, you can read more here.